Around the world, people are thinking through what museums mean, with activists making clarion calls for more diversity and stronger attention paid to problematic philanthropy. These are issues that some have been thinking through for years, and in 2015, noted philosopher and curator Paul B. Preciado—whose work around Europe includes credits for Documenta 14, the LUMA Foundation, and MACBA in Madrid—addressed them in “The Neoliberal Museum,” an essay republished in his new book An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing, which was translated into English by Charlotte Mandel. Below, in the piece included in the volume published by the MIT Press and Semiotext(e), Preciado diagnoses a state in which museums can’t be separated from the “spectacularization” they specialize in—an accusation being levied all the more loudly today.
It would be hard to be in New York now without experiencing the media barrage promoting the Björk exhibit at MoMA, just as it’s apparently hard to be in Paris and escape the hype around the Jeff Koons exhibit at the Centre Pompidou. Björk’s voice has always been for me a magnificent hymn to vegetal love, and I feel nothing but sympathy for a guy who has himself photographed naked fucking with Cicciolina and who, like me, adores poodles. Let’s set Björk and Koons aside (they’re nothing but simple instruments here). These two exhibitions are signs of what the contemporary modern art museum is becoming in the neoliberal era.
What they both demonstrate is that marketing and development strategies have marched straight into these spaces. For a brief period, it was possible to transform the museum into a democratic laboratory where the public sphere was being reinvented. But now this idea is being dismantled in the name of one single argument: dependence on public subsidies must be bypassed in times of “crisis”; the time has come to make the museum into a profitable business.
This new museum, we are told, must be transformed into a semiotic-enterprise. These are the criteria that we, info-employees of contemporary art museums, must take into account when we plan our exhibits—if we are the info-employees of contemporary art museums. For solo shows, we are obedient to the “big name” regime, the immediately recognizable names, since the museum is geared above all toward the tourist. This is one of the characteristics of the neoliberal museum: to transform even the local visitor into a tourist of the history of globalized capitalism.
This explains the architecture of the exhibition spaces at MoMA: a fluid space in which Björk’s video Big Time Sensuality, filmed in Times Square in 1993, is visible from every room, while we penetrate into a labyrinth where Van Gogh’s Starry Night rubs elbows with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Jasper Johns’s flag, or Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. The visitor will see nothing he wasn’t already familiar with or that he wouldn’t find in Taschen Books’ “hundred best artists” category. Like a semiotic machine, this new baroque-financial museum produces a signifier without history, a homogeneous sensorial product, smooth and continuous, inside which Björk, Picasso and Times Square are interchangeable.
Today, a good museum director must become a sales executive able to develop global profitable services. A director of public programming must be a specialist in analyzing the cultural market, in “multi-channel programming,” searching for new clients—sorry, we should say “audiences”—managing “big data” and in dynamic pricefixing (remember that full entry to MoMA costs the “dynamic” sum of $25). The curators (who as time passes are becoming more important than the artists) are the new heroes of this process of spectacularization. Exhibitions are products, and “art history” becomes a simple cognitive-financial accumulation. The museum is then transformed into an abstract, privatized space, an enormous media-mercantile earthworm: the MOMAPOMPIDOUTATEGUGGENHEIMABUDHABI… Impossible to tell where you are, where you came in, where the exit is.
This proliferation of works as identifiable brands is part of the general process of abstraction and dematerialization of value in contemporary capitalism. In the realm of the baroque-financial museum, works of art are no longer thought of according to their ability to question our habitual modes of perceiving or knowing, but rather according to their infinite interchangeability. Art is exchanged for signs and money, no longer for experience or subjectivity. Here, the consumable sign, its economic, media value, is separated from the artwork, possesses it, empties it, devours it and, as Benjamin says, destroys it. It is a museum in which art, the public space, and the public as critical agent are all dead. Let’s stop calling it a museum and call it the “necromuseum.” An archive of our own global destruction.
If we want to save the museum, perhaps we should choose public ruin over private profitability. And if that is not possible, perhaps the time has come to occupy the museum collectively, to empty it of its debts and raise barricades of meaning there. To turn out its lights so that, without any possibility of spectacle, it can function as the parliament of another sensibility.
— New York, March 14, 2015
Excerpted from An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing by Paul B. Preciado. Reprinted with permission from Semiotext(e) and The MIT Press. Copyright 2020.